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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories



Rangeland Restoration -
New Management Practices in the Otter Creek Watershed

Utah's Otter Creek watershed is a tributary to the Sevier River. Located mostly in Sevier and Piute counties, Otter Creek provides municipal, industrial, and agricultural water to several thousand downstream water users. However, the watershed is also a source of nitrate and nitrites, phosphorus, sulfate, sediment, and coliform to the Sevier. Most of the riparian areas along Otter Creek were in poor condition before the restoration project began, and while some riparian areas have greatly improved, much of the watershed was not affected by the restoration and remains degraded.

Otter Creek watershed encompasses 240,000 acres. It is about 39 miles long and 12 miles wide, and drains into the East Fork of the Sevier River. Otter Creek is the main tributary to the East Fork, with six to eight tributaries feeding it. Three reservoirs are also located within the watershed: Boobe Hole, Koosharem, and Otter Creek.

Streambank erosion

Studies of the watershed identify several water quality problems, including sheet, rill, gully, and streambank erosion; streambank channel erosion; and degraded riparian areas. The loss of vegetation in the riparian areas and on rangeland increases erosion, which is aggravated by heavy grazing. Livestock and wildlife (deer and elk) have grazed this land for many years.

About 38,000 acres of highly eroded land within the watershed need special treatment to stabilize vegetative cover. This area contributes up to 18 tons of sediment per acre per year. About 80 percent of the affected land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management; the rest is private.

Ongoing efforts will reduce rangeland erosion and stabilize streambanks to prevent continued erosion.

Much of the worst streambank erosion along Otter Creek and many other Utah rivers and streams took place a decade ago during the severe floods in 1983 and 1984. Erosion during lower flow years is usually caused by animals trampling banks as they drink from the stream.

Stream-channel erosion also affects the riparian condition by lowering the water table along some reaches of the stream. When adequate water no longer reaches the root systems, riparian and other vegetation cannot survive to protect the streambanks from erosion, thus, changing both the water quality and quantity. Shrubs and other vegetation no longer filter the runoff that flows to Otter Creek. Without this important filter strip, agricultural chemicals and animal wastes can more easily enter the stream.

Irrigated acres and wet meadows

The watershed has about 2,800 acres of irrigated pasture/hayland and some 3,100 acres of wet meadows adjacent to Otter Creek. About 90 percent of the land is privately owned. Heavy livestock concentrations in these areas are a potential source of additional sediment, nutrient, and coliform bacteria.

The objectives of the restoration project in the Otter Creek watershed follow from this analysis of historic and current land uses and their effect on the health of the watershed. Ongoing efforts will reduce rangeland erosion and stabilize streambanks to prevent further erosion. To reach these goals, landowners and other partners must begin proper management of wet meadows and pasture/hayland to prevent pollutants from reaching the stream, modify grazing practices to better manage erodible rangeland, and install irrigation systems to assist in irrigation water management.

CONTACT: George Hopkin
Environmental Quality Section
Utah Department of Environmental Quality
(801) 538-7177

Miles of Fences, Hundreds of Cows -
Farmers on the Little Bear River Protect Water Quality

Richard Nielsen runs a 250-cow dairy near Hyrum, Utah, in the Cache Valley. A third generation farmer, Nielsen worries about things his father and grandfather never had to think about. One such concern is water quality.

Nielsen's farm is along a canal in the Little Bear River watershed. Water in the canal is diverted from the Little Bear River just below Porcupine Reservoir. It serves several farms above Nielsen's dairy and two or three farms below before his before emptying into Spring Creek. Spring Creek, in turn, eventually drains into the Little Bear River. The return of the canal to the main channel creates a potential for agricultural nonpoint source pollution that lets Nielsen and other farmers along the canal know that they must be good stewards of their resources. They are also good candidates for programs funded by section 319 grants.

Rerouting the water

"Nielsen's dairy was, in fact, contributing significant coliform to the system before we began this project," says Bob Clark of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. His corral was adjacent to the canal and it had been built on a downward slope to the water. Everything drained right into the canal. The problem worsened during storms and flowed constantly during spring runoff.

"Consider the miles of fences we've installed and the number of cows we've moved off the river already. And more projects are expected."

Project managers considered various alternatives before deciding to pipe the canal around the corral. Project money also helped Nielsen construct two animal waste storage facilities. Now any pollution that leaves the corral goes directly into pasture and alfalfa fields and does not leave the farm. While work was being completed at the Nielsen dairy, other section 319 projects and other types of water quality efforts were taking place upstream from Nielsen's property on the canal.

Water quality improvements

The results are significant. The Cache County Health Department took water samples above and below the canal before and after the project. Tests were run for total coliform and fecal coliform. Before Nielsen's farm was included in the section 319 project, total coliform in the canal entering his property was 10,000 colonies per 100 milliLiters (mL) of water; the fecal coliform count was 7,600 colonies per 100 mL.

At a point just below Nielsen's corral, the total and fecal coliform were too numerous to count. After the completion of Nielsen's project and other projects at farms upstream on the canal, total and fecal coliform levels fell to 350 colonies per 100 mL entering Nielsen's farm. What's more, the readings below the corral were identical. Contamination by the dairy had been completely eliminated.

More projects expected

Though the project at the Nielsen dairy was only a tiny piece of the water quality puzzle, the successes are starting to mount up in the Little Bear River and other watersheds that host section 319 projects, according to Utah's Department of Agriculture. Such projects also demonstrate the value of continued water quality monitoring. The Division of Water Quality needs dependable quantitative data to document improvements and the methods used to achieve them.

An interagency workgroup has formed to monitor channel geomorphology, riparian health, and biological integrity in the Little Bear River watershed. This initiative will document the permanent effectiveness of the BMPs on several stream reaches and, in time, provide a more complete picture of stream recovery.

"Consider the miles of fences we've installed and the number of cows we've moved off the river already," says Nielsen, "and more projects are expected. Monitoring will ensure that our efforts are not in vain."

CONTACT: George Hopkin
Environmental Quality Section
Utah Department of Environmental Quality
(801) 538-7177

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